Sending the horse to the trainer: Things to consider

The idea for this blog has been in the back of my mind for a while, but the other day as I was about to cross-post a different blog on a blog directory, three titles of articles written by other folks caught my eye.  Each of their blogs was mocking/sarcastic comments about horse trainers and their cliché attitudes towards clients. Sadly, there was a lot of truth in what was being written.

Nowadays the general public has limited time to spend with their equine partners. Scenarios such as a spring tune-up, continuing education in an older horse, “maintenance” training, or starting a young colt, will create a need for folks to send their horse to a horse trainer.

When it comes to discussing the typical client/trainer relationship there could be many tangents, but in this blog I’ll keep it to three main areas of focus: Respectful Relationship, Asking Questions and Behind the Scenes.

Respectful Relationship

Keep in mind that in the USA, anyone can literally hang up a sign and say that they are a horse trainer.  That being said, even if someone does have the talent and ability to work with horses, does not automatically mean that they will/can run a business successfully, have the ability to clearly communicate with people or teach the human student, or that they have the human resources skills to be a quality boss.

As with many things that involve humans and tradition, certain behaviors within the professional equine industry have wrongfully (in my opinion) become accepted by the public.  I have personally been subjected to (as a student and client), and had to work under (as a working student and employee) these impolite and often boorish behaviors. They are completely absent of anything remotely professional or respectful- often to either the human or the horse.

Even if behaviors among horse trainers have become “the norm” and have been conventional for years, such as using disrespectful language with clients, a lack of clearly defined billing procedures/costs/over-billing clients, and a defensiveness towards explaining training methods/plans for clients, does not mean that they are or should be customary behavior and continue.

Because the equine industry is flooded with “horse trainers” it is very difficult to “get a foot in the door,” which can be the root cause of the “starving trainer” cliché. Commonly due to a lack of business background or grandiose but unrealistic business plans, inadequate budget, over-spending tendencies, and the inability to market appropriately, there is often a constant anxiety the trainer is feeling.  Horse trainers can be some of the most stressed-out professionals I’ve ever encountered.  With that constant stress, their emotions and patience are like a swinging pendulum; clients never know “who” they’ll encounter on any given day. 

Another contributor to the stress is the lack of consistency in the horse market.  So with no guarantee ever of a paycheck, it is a highly initially romanticized job that in reality is nothing of the sort.  The burden and distraction of continual financial stress takes a toll on the professional, which is often displayed in their rough, gruff, degrading attitudes and hurried mannerisms towards the horse and human alike.

As the client you have a choice who you give your hard earned money to.  Every time you pay someone, you are reaffirming their business practices and behavior. Plus you are putting your horse at the ‘mercy’ of the trainer.  I have yet to encounter a disrespectful, rude trainer towards people, who suddenly becomes polite when around the horse.  If a professional is unable to be kind, patient and respectful towards the client, they certainly are not going to be that way towards the client’s horse.

Sometimes the relationship between a client/trainer can evolve or devolve; just because you started with a trainer and all was well initially, honestly continue to evaluate the relationship every few months. If you see dramatic and negative changes in the professional’s behavior, you as the client have NO obligation to stay with the trainer.  Remember it is often your horse that will pay the “ultimate” physical and emotional price and it may take years to “undo” what has been done by the disrespectful trainer.

Ask Questions

Just as with buying a horse, starting a new endeavor such as working with a horse trainer will require effort, energy and research on your part. Just because someone offers a service that is of interest to you, does not mean that your personalities will be a good fit.  I also suggest to people to go and watch lessons and training being offered by the potentially new horse trainer.  By visiting and auditing in person, and watching a variety of scenarios, you’ll get the most “honest” version of what they’ll offer. 

If the trainer will not allow you to watch, WALK AWAY! There should never be any secret “behind the scenes” training or coaching that they are unwilling to share with a potential new client. 

If you are able to audit a lesson or training session, go with your “gut” instinct.  Even if you have limited experience, if something about the overall “picture” does not seem right, trust the little voice in your head.  Horse training or riding lessons should be positive, supportive, engaging and done with the encouragement of the trainer.  If you’re witnessing any crude, aggressive or rude behaviors by the professional, WALK AWAY!

Other questions to ask include the frequency of communication between trainer and client during the horse’s training.  Many folks send their horse to the professional and don’t hear from them until a bill is sent every 30 days.  (Although an uncommon practice, I personally update folks via email every few days to keep them in the loop. This also allows them reference points to re-read when their horse returns home and they want to better understand what training has occurred and how I approached working with their horse.)

Sadly I have frequently heard trainers berating clients for inquiring about their horse’s progressive.  The trainer that becomes immediately defensive, or that takes a question from a client as a critique, has a “lot” of other things going on.  Horse trainers are famous for intimidating their clients into submission, and sadly treat the equines the same way.  As a client, there should be no fear to ask questions or understand what is happening with your horse.

That being said, there’s also a “line” that needs to not be crossed by the client.  There are some trainers can be overly friendly. In some cases clients mistake the kind behavior and conversations with the pro and unknowingly take advantage of the trainer’s time and energies. Clients are often unaware that mixing the professional and personal friendship with the trainer can lead to another range of issues.

Another part of asking questions is to learn what will go “on” behind the scenes when the owner is not present.

Behind the Scenes

Due to many of the factors addressed earlier in this blog, there seems to never be enough hours in the day for most trainers to get everything accomplished.  Therefor (and often not through malicious intention) the trainer will take on too many horses or responsibilities in an attempt to “pay the bills.”  This can lead to a lack in quality time spent with each horse, or more often, to the trainer resorting to having other folks work with clients horses. This could be grooms doing most of the handling, working students or assistant trainers warming up/schooling/cooling down horses, etc.  The problem is that no two trainers/riders are the same, even if they learned or are using the same style/technique of training.

So if a client has sent their horse to be in training with Professional X, due to that person’s ability, if the horse is mostly being handled by assistant Professional Y, obviously there’ll be a different outcome in the horse’s training.  I have witnessed at a multitude of facilities and among various disciplines, this to frequently be the case, leaving the clients in the “dark” about who is actually doing most of the training with their horse. 

Keep in mind that every moment a horse is being handled, groomed, worked with, ridden, etc. is an opportunity for them to learn something.  Although at larger facilities it is not possible for the head trainer to do “everything,” if you know that other employees will be working with your horse, go and WATCH those who handle the horse, to make sure they are folks you’d trust and agree with their training practices.

I suggest once a week if possible, but at least bi-monthly, go and watch your horse being worked.  It will allow you enough “gap” in between sessions to see progress or any red flags or concerns.  Again, if your horse is suddenly displaying things such as an unhealthy drop in weight, signs of stress, worry, anxiety, etc. YOU need to make the decisions to find a better fit from another trainer that is willing to work WITH your horse, his personality, ability, maturity, etc.

“Breaking up” with a horse trainer can be incredibly uncomfortable, stressful and lead to a lot of gossip within the local horse community.  So what.  I am here to tell you that in the long run, YOU need to do what is best for you and your horse, irrelevant of what works for anyone else and their needs.  Just because one trainer “gets results” with one horse does not mean that the same trainer will be a good match for your horse.

So please, push tradition to the side, and spend some time searching for a quality, respectful, kind and of course talented trainer for you and your horse. It may take more effort and patience than you realized, but in the long run you’ll not only save money but you’ll be happier with your horse’s progression and results.


Pain in horses- an unaddressed common denominator

Let me preface this blog by saying I am NOT any of the following: veterinarian, equine nutritionist, equine dentist, farrier, equine chiropractor, equine naturopath or any other medical related equine professional. 

What I am is an equine professional who sees/handles hundreds of horses a year of varying ages and breeds, with differing degrees of training and exposure/experience in both competitive and pleasure disciplines. 

I am continually learning from every horse I encounter; when I think back to years ago to what I’ll call during my initial 14 years of learning in the “traditional” riding lessons and clinics stage, I can only clearly twice remember two instances of professionals looking at my equipment and asking me why I was using what I was using on my horse. One instructor suggested a stronger more severe bit for “control” (later I learned this was a standard suggestion and not a personalized nor appropriate suggestion for my ability nor the horse I was riding at the time) and the other was from a Dutch clinician who suggested the KK Herm Sprenger bit, (which to this day I still use,) if I’m introducing or using a bit on a horse.

I have found that commonly at traditional boarding facilities the students all used the same farrier, the same vet, fed the same feed, etc. and no one ever questioned if those practices were appropriate for their individual horse.  Why? I’m guessing out of convenience, but also because students were/are often taught “this is how you do it, this is who you use” and the unspoken “don’t question the ‘system’ ” is loud and clear.

Nowadays I find that as I approach a horse for the first time, whether one that has arrived for a seasonal clinic, weekly lesson or initial training, I tend to automatically start visually scanning the horse physically.

Things such as the direction and reaction of the ears, worried lines or tension peaks above the eyes, emptiness/brightness in the eye, busy-ness in the lips/lines/tension in the mouth/odd jaw movement, tension in the poll/withers, lack of mobility/range in the neck/shoulder, uneven muscle development from one side of the horse to the other along the top-line, continual tightness along the rib cage parallel to the ground, hindquarters sunken in or tail held tight against rump, inconsistent breathing, shortness of step, foot/heel placement as the hoof touches the ground, etc. are just a few things I look at.

I look at the overall “balance” of physical development of the horse, his coat, etc. as I ask about what feed/frequency and any health issues. Then I move on to what equipment has been used and why; probing about issues, changes, resistance, problems, etc. with tack and equipment.

This is all BEFORE we’ve actually done anything. At all.  And I LISTEN to what is and perhaps isn’t being said by the owner.

Then I start to assess the general behavior of the horse (i.e. totally oblivious he is attached to other end of the lead rope and is dragging the owner around in search of grass or staring at new setting, defensive when touched by owner, worried/concerned behavior just as we are standing- or attempting to stand, etc.) If inclined I will start to run my hands over/around/near certain parts of the body that seem to “jump out” as uncomfortable or hypersensitive areas based on how I read the horse’s body language.

Why do I do all of this? It gives me a starting point.  Clients come to me for help.  Often, though they may have good intentions or think they are clear on what they want help with or want to work on with their horse, the owner may be focusing on a symptom of the “issue(s)” rather than understanding the root cause. 

In many cases I’m playing detective and trying to connect the dots between unwanted obvious behaviors (symptoms), and searching for contributing factors creating the undesired outcome in the horse.  And yes, realistically multiple issues, experiences, anticipation/lack of understanding/ill-fitting equipment/miscommunication all contribute to the “problems” with the horse.

To put things into perspective, I ask folks, “How receptive would you be to learning or trying something new if you were in a constant state of pain?” They tend to admit that they’d probably be unable to focus, be patient, try the unknown or trust someone new.  The same goes for their horses.

So if it is obvious something is physically bothering the horse, I need to respectfully attempt to address that first, BEFORE I move on to “training”, with or without the owner.  Obviously there’ll be a wide pendulum between easier things such as digestion issues, compared to long term corrective dental or farrier care whose results will take longer to see/make a difference.  With that in mind, I will adjust how much I ask of the horse in a session.

Things like maturity, experience, confidence will all factor in to how much I ask a horse to mentally engage and participate. But first I need the horse to be as comfortable as possible.  I have seen drastic differences while experimenting in making small changes for horses with an array of ailments including things such as inappropriate feed program with either too much sugar or protein content, sleep deprivation issues, ulcer/hind gut issues, idealistic angles in farrier care vs. appropriate shoeing for their individual build- therefor causing more damage than good, rehabilitating old physical injuries/atrophied muscles from things like pulling back when tied/severe training methods/ill-fitting saddles, teeth/jaw/poll issues that create dramatic reactions in how they respond/use/carry their head, and much more.

Sometimes having a horse for a long time causes a familiarity that can mask an owner’s clarity in literally seeing if there may be physical/emotional/behavioral issues occurring with their horse. It is always good to keep a calendar of any changes made in diet/lifestyle/work/veterinary care/farrier care/tack to allow yourself to keep track of any “new” behaviors that occur afterwards.  With the craziness of “life” owners sometimes lose perspective of how long/when a behavior or change happens in the horse (good or bad) therefor causing a lack of understanding that a change in one area caused “results” in another seemingly unrelated area.

If you have a trusted equine professional, have your horse at least once a year evaluated for overall health; you do not need to “wait” until something is glaringly wrong before asking for another opinion.  Or take pictures and measurements every two months of your horse from both sides, front, behind, measurements of weight, hoof size, etc.  You’ll be amazed how much your horse’s body can change seasonally between the Spring and the Fall. Often these physical changes will require a change in the feed regiment and the tack used. 

If you don’t understand why you’re feeding what you are, why you are using the tack that “came with the horse” or what your equine professional is doing with/to your horse, ASK QUESTIONS! It is your responsibility as the owner to understand, think, question and do what is in the horse’s best interest. Please do not just follow the latest “trend” in the equine world, as often by doing so, can lead to more long term damage than good.

If I had to put a percentile to the number of horses that I see that are physically in pain or discomfort it would be in the high 80s.  That are a lot of uncomfortable horses, and often with a little investigative, proactive detective work, experimentation and follow through, folks can eliminate unnecessary stress, agitation, pain, and distraction, allowing the opportunity for a quality partnership.

Don’t beat yourself up if after an honest assessment you realize your horse is in pain; the good news is you are now becoming aware and more sensitive in your horse management.  The knowledge gained by honestly evaluating your horse will allow you more “information” in order to make better informed decisions for improving the comfort of your horse. Remember, your horse only has so many ways of asking for help, and often the most dramatic behaviors are seen in the horses that need the most mental, emotional and physical help.


Time and the illusion of multi-tasking

For people who are new to my teaching and training theories, there are many questions and frequently a great deal of pondering and brooding as folks start to question “the way they’ve always done things” with their horses.

An introspective assessment, rather than seeking “answers” by imitating others, frequently leads people to an uncomfortable stage, of not so “pretty” revelations about themselves, behaviors and patterns in their interaction with their horses.
Unfortunately in our western society we are often praised for how much we can multi-task, seemingly “accomplishing” more tasks in a very limited time.

It may appear that individuals are achieving multiple tasks, but when it comes down to quality, clarity and intention when completing those responsibilities, they often are lacking those traits. The difficulty arises when we take a highly sensitive animal like the horse who will “feed” off of our energy, and we head out to the barn carrying chaos, distraction and tension.

Since we no longer rely on horses for survival, most people want to ride or be with their horse and use the experience as an emotional outlet.  The problem is horses are highly emotional and sensitive creatures.  They also are mirrors to those around them, and reflect what people “bring” to the experience. If folks are rushed, distracted, and stressed from “life” and unintentionally carry “baggage” from the daily demands of job, family, life, etc. to our equine partners, it makes for a less than desirable experience for both participants.
So the next time you are THINKING about riding, stop for a moment.  Take 10 (I’m not kidding) deep breaths, mentally scanning your body for rigidity, distraction, or tightness.  With each breath, feel that you can let go of “reality” for an hour or two while you head out to the barn.  

It may sound a bit “touchy/feely” but horses are not machines sitting and waiting to “serve” their human’s purpose.  The horse within seconds of your arrival has assessed where your brain and emotions are.  If you aren’t present, neither will he be, leading to a less than quality experience. They can be fantastic partners, but only if offered fair and respectful communication. Why not spend quality time, rather than “dutiful” time with him?

And trust me, all those “urgent” problems will still be waiting for you when you’re done spending time with your horse. So, leave reality at the door, and literally give yourself permission to slow down and enjoy the ride!


Finding the ideal equine partner- and selling the unwanted one

Each spring receive inquiries from people wanting to sell their current inappropriate horse, and how they can find a better suited one.  I could write a book on the things that should be considered when buying a horse, but I'll leave it for now at the below synopsis.

The "ideal" safe, reasonable, sane, sound, fun, experienced, confident and not-too-aged horse has become the most sought after horse. So they are really, really hard to find.  In a limited location such as north Idaho, they are near impossible to find.  I'm currently searching the entire USA looking for two of them for clients of mine. 

Horses are not what they were 25 years ago; between backyard breeding and a lack of quality exposure to a multitude of locations, activities, disciplines, riders, etc. horses nowadays don't have the confidence and experience most things pleasure riders will ask of them. Riders also have a limited skill set and cannot positively support their horse through troubling or worrisome experiences. It can become the blind leading the blind, which does not build confidence in the partnership. 

Is it possible to find a great horse? Yes, but it requires a LOT of effort, research, energy and time.  Folks imposing a time pressure upon themselves when buying a new horse leads to an inappropriate match. If the wrong horse is purchased, there are new issues in both the daily handling of the horse and then trying to re-sell it, often costing the person more money. Another factor in people buying an inappropriate horse is by allowing their emotional "hopefulness" to take over, versus believing what their initial rational assessment of the horse is.

When searching for a new horse, a person needs to "educate" themself on specific questions to ask, and how to interpret what is or isn't being said by the seller. Have a list of scenarios to expose the potential new horse to; this can help assess his mental and emotional state in new situations.  Unless you're a "horse trainer" and this is your lifestyle, the horse's current attitude, experience, emotional state, etc. TODAY needs to be the horse you want. DO NOT maintain hopefulness that he will evolve into the horse you want "someday, further down the road.

The value of horses has dropped significantly and most "pleasure" horses aren't worth much, but the well broke, happy horse is highly sought after, so rarely will you find him under $4,000 US, because people realize they are worth their weight in gold.

Pleasure riders without the time, education, experience or clarity to independently help an unfamiliar or newly bought troubled horse, can lead to dramatic and sometimes dangerous outcomes, inducing fear in the human for a very long time. I also warn folks the most dangerous rides are often when trying out a new horse.  Always watch the owner first do EVERYTHING you might ask when trying out the potential new horse.

As for attempting to sell a difficult horse, if they don't have exposure, miles, or enough "quality" traits, often the price has to be low enough that whomever takes him on as a project horse, can justify the amount of time and effort they will have to "invest" in him for him to evolve into an ideal horse.  The problem with pricing him low, is that it brings two groups of unwanted buyers- the "horse poor" buyers who are the ultimate hopeful horse folks who often lack the skills and abilities and therefor can get hurt by a horse like that, if they fixate that he needs "saving"- and then there's the kill buyers.

Putting the word out to those who see and know a lot of people within the horse community, vets and farriers are usually best, is a good place to start.  If in a remote location, it is hard for people to find out about a horse. The problem with online horse sale listings is there are many time wasters who will contact you.  It can be an emotional rollercoaster every time someone sounds "good" and then shows up and turns out to be different than what they had implied in their knowledge, abilities, etc. Remember people "hear" what they want to.  So even if you as the seller are morally and ethical honest and direct and disclose all of the faults, flaws, etc. about the horse, as soon as potential, hopeful, buyer sees a "pretty" horse, most of what you say isn't "heard" because they are too busy falling in love with horse in an ideal version of him in their head.

I wish more equine professionals were really honest about all the effort it takes to find a quality match in finding an equine partner, to prevent folks from ending up with a less than ideal horse and learning the "hard" way. The illusion that if someone follows a DVD, magazine article or TV program on how to “train” a horse, that the average working full-time/have a family/life, etc. equine enthusiasts can "train" a horse for what they want is troublesome to me. 

Please ask for help in assessing and buying a potential horse. My basic rule of thumb is to have people go seeing at least 20 horses before they say “yes” to anything.

The "honest" answers aren't always the ones we want to hear, but they do tend to be the ones we NEED to hear.